I was in the car with Graham Cobb, who heads the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, on a May afternoon when it hit me just how explosive the city's growth has been.
I halted my Arkansas travel for 14 months due to the pandemic. I hit the road again in May once my family was fully vaccinated, and this was my first time in Bentonville since late 2019. As Cobb showed me new development after new development, I realized that a year is an eternity by Bentonville standards.
It wasn't a surprise, therefore, when the census showed that Bentonville has grown from 35,301 residents to 54,164 since the 2010 census. That's an incredible 53.4 percent growth rate. And there's no sign of it slowing down.
In 1960, Bentonville's population was 3,649. The city grew to 5,508 in 1970; 8,756 in 1980; 11,257 in 1990, and 19,730 in 2000. That was impressive, but it's nothing compared with what has happened since the turn of the century.
Population has almost tripled in the past 20 years. If that pace is sustained during the next 20 years, Bentonville could have 150,000 residents by the 2040 census.
Even the University of Arkansas is making inroads into Bentonville these days. Cobb and I walked around an office park that's serving as home base for an innovation outreach effort known as the Collaborative.
Last year, it was announced that the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation had given the UA a $194.7 million gift to establish the Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research. A research facility will be built on the main campus at Fayetteville.
The gift included $14 million to establish a satellite site at Bentonville. The office park also will be used to offer non-credit executive education courses.
In July, Toby Teeter, who previously served as chamber of commerce CEO in Joplin, Mo., began work as the first director of the Collaborative.
"I look forward to connecting Bentonville business leaders and economic development stakeholders with the university to establish strategic partnerships and champion innovation culture," Teeter said at the time. "The Collaborative will be a catalyst for Bentonville innovations, bringing together special people in a special place."
The university describes the Collaborative as "a spoke of the newly developed Institute for Integrative and Innovative Research, envisioned to co-locate certain key functions to meet current and future community needs as well as plan for future outreach expansion. ... Among the three initial objectives of the Collaborative, the first is to facilitate and encourage industry-academic engagement and co-created innovation with a focus on technology, the digital economy, and data science and analytics.
"The second is to serve the post-baccalaureate education needs of individuals and organizations throughout northwest Arkansas. The third aim is to connect integrative research efforts to enterprises throughout the region to increase the commercialization of research and technology."
Bentonville's Greenway Office Park is adjacent to the Momentary (a contemporary art museum that's a sister institution to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art), Razorback Greenway and 8th Street Market. The office park will also be the Bentonville home of what's known as UA Global Campus, providing enrichment opportunities, professional development, computer and technology training, certification programs and customized training.
According to the UA: "Entrepreneurship and commercialization instruction, diversity training and meeting spaces are also available. In addition to managing the Bentonville location, Teeter will support regional entrepreneurship and facilitate industry partnerships and commercialization of discovery."
Thus the UA makes its first steps into Bentonville. Combine that with the aforementioned Momentary and Crystal Bridges, the massive new Walmart campus, private developments from the Walton family's Runway Group, and Alice Walton's plan to make Bentonville a nationally known medical center with her Whole Health Institute and a medical school.
You put all of those pieces together and suddenly a population of 150,000 by 2040 doesn't seem out of the question.
After walking around Greenway Office Park and driving through Walmart's construction site (it's like creating a university campus from scratch), Cobb and I looked at the nine-acre site just north of the Momentary that will house City U. The 360-unit multifamily project will have 26 buildings ranging from two to five stories. It's being developed by Blue Crane, the real estate acquisition and development arm of the Runway Group.
Razorback Regional Greenway is adjacent to the development. The developers have taken out building permits totaling almost $65 million.
Blue Crane already has developed innovative projects in Bentonville such as 8th Street Market, Skylight Cinema and Crystal Flats. They are the type of things one would expect to find in much larger cities. And Bentonville, no doubt, will soon be a much larger city.
"On top of all this, we average building about three miles of mountain bike trails a week in this part of the state," said Cobb, who's a cyclist. "You continue to see this whole convergence of the arts, science and outdoor recreation."
Cobb likes to look at the license plates of parked cars to see where they're from.
"On weekends, it's almost like being in a ski resort," he said. "They come from everywhere."
As Bentonville adds amenities, many of these folks will visit again. Some will no doubt move here.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.